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Tolstoy And The Tao

I’m continuing to think about Noah Millman’s discussion of a temperamental conservatism he describes as Tolstoyan (see my post from yesterday, which has links to Noah’s three entries about it). Here is the heart of Noah’s idea:

And Kutuzov, as Tolstoy portrays him, is distinguished not by tactical brilliance, nor by having some theory of how war should be conducted, but by having an intuitive feel for what conditions actually are, and for not being distracted by his own ego, by any need to prove himself relevant.  He abandons Moscow without a fight because Moscow is going to be lost anyway, so why lose the army as well? When the tide turns in Russia’s favor, he senses this, and tries to restrain his own army from wasting lives fighting when the French army is disintegrating of its own accord – but even this restraint he applies prudentially, aware that the spirit of the men will demand opportunities for action even when there is no objective need.

Kutuzov is portrayed less as a commander than as a surfer, sensing the quality of the waves, waiting for the right time to ride them to shore. And more than all the other surfers, he seems to be aware that this is all he is. To that extent alone is he the hero of 1812.

I would argue that, as a society, we could use more of Tolstoy’s Kutuzovs, and more awareness, as a society, of the truth that Tolstoy is articulating about them.

The more I think about this, the more it seems to me like an articulation of a Taoist approach to politics. Taoism teaches that change is constant, and that the wise man learns to “go with the flow” to maintain balance and harmony. But he also knows that nothing is permanent, and that to yield today may, in time, lay the basis for triumph. This is in part because to the Taoist, everything has within it its opposite. Today’s liberator may be tomorrow’s tyrant. Interestingly, the paradoxes taught by Jesus Christ — the man who conquered Rome by submitting to execution by Rome — are rather Taoist, but that’s a separate story, well told in this book by an Orthodox Christian monk.

Anyway, the prudent man — which is to say the virtuous man — is one who senses the currents of events, and adjusts himself to “surf” atop them (to use Noah’s metaphor). Taoism, as I understand it, is not a moral code but a method. Taoism is consonant with a philosophical conservatism in that it recognizes the possibility that things we actively do to deal with an evil may lead to worse evils. Hence prudence, caution, patience. Taoism can deal with the tragic sense.

The problem with this is it can often mean accommodation to evil. The other day I finished watching The American Experience’s biography of Ronald Reagan. He was absolutely right about the evil of the Soviet Union, and those on the left and the right (the Nixonites, I mean) who feared and loathed him for opposing détente were wrong. No one can plausibly deny that now. Yet if things had gone differently with the Soviets, we would judge Reagan harshly. Reagan and his men understood that the Soviet Union was much weaker than most people realized. Their actions were not only moral, but prudent.

On a much less grand scale, one reason Newt Gingrich and his GOP upstarts forced out Rep. Bob Michel and the go-along-to-get-along House Republicans is that they sensed that the time was right to challenge the Democratic status quo. Michel was prudent to a fault, and Team Gingrich took advantage of that.

It seems to me that the point Noah Millman is making is not that we should all be Tolstoyan/Taoist in the sense that I’ve described here, but that we should recognize the virtue in that temperament, and pay more attention to it. But you have to know how to balance it with knowing when it is time to act, as opposed to refrain from acting. The problem with that in American political culture is that prudence is typically criticized as moral cowardice of one kind or another.

For example:

You think invading Iraq is imprudent? What are you, unpatriotic? Do you really believe that dictators like Saddam should go unchallenged? How dare you say that Arabs don’t deserve democracy!


You oppose same-sex marriage? What are you, some kind of bigot? So what if you think this is a huge experiment with unforeseen consequences — a right is a right, and must be fought for.


You think social conservatives should give up the fight to keep same-sex marriage illegal, and focus on religious liberty? What are you, some kind of surrender monkey? Our cause is right, and we must never, ever make peace with untruth.

You see what I mean. The thing is, nobody celebrates those whose prudent inaction kept disaster at bay, and thereby laid the groundwork for future successes. I think about Cardinal Wojtyla, in Poland, who hated communism, but did not have the power to mount an all-out assault on the regime. He bided his time, and when Providence gave him a platform, he acted, and slew that dragon. If he had not been elected Pope, and had died as a Polish cardinal under communism, and some future leader — religious or secular — emerged from within Poland to successfully challenge the communist state, would all the prudent work Cardinal Wojtyla did to keep the church alive in a time of great persecution be remembered as contributing to its eventual triumph over communism? Or would we remember Cdl. Wojtyla as a man who went along to get along?

There are always people who are moral weaklings and who collaborate with evil, or (less dramatically), fail to take a stand for what’s right when it could cost them. But not everybody who rushes passionately and heedlessly into the fray is admirable, and not everyone who waits for a better moment to act is a weakling. American politics rewards the demonstrative, not the deliberative, in part because the demonstrative makes for a better story. We forget that not every hero is conventionally heroic. We forget that sometimes, you really ought not to fire until you see the whites of their eyes.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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